Friday, May 28, 2010

I once was a “Savage Man God” I

I was recently contacted by a former housemate who will be in Toronto temporarily. We were housemates in the Lowther co-op housing division, in Toronto downtown, somewhere close to Bloor, between Spadina and Bay St.

humble beginnings

University life is meant to be enjoyed on campus and this was the reason (among others) I chose to pay “rent” and live downtown, even though I had “free housing” uptown, with my parents. Looking for a place to live takes a long time, and by the time I was about to give up, the semester had already started. I finally learned about co-op – this wonderful place where you didn’t have to pay that much but were expected to clean after yourself, cook and wash dishes. Whoa, I thought, isn’t that something you have to do anyway?

I was first placed on a waiting list when I called them. Then I came in person, calmly explained that I could no longer wait and next day somebody called me to tell me that she will be showing me the vacancies.

There’s more than one? I inquired, incredulous. “Sure”, the blonde girl with a discrete, story-telling perfume answered. “We like to keep our options open, as most houses want foreign students at this time of the year”. I ended up getting a room on the first floor of an old Victorian house, with very large windows that were incredibly drafty and a house “leader” whose father was an editor of the New York Times. I loved the light, I didn’t like the constant sounds of shagging, which became evident every time I myself wasn’t overusing my small bed.

The Savage House (165 Lowther) is tersely described as:
Houses 11 members with 2 washrooms and 1 kitchen. Savage House was originally an all-male house that called its residents the "Savage Man Gods". Savage House was purchased in 1965. This house is a non-smoking house.

This description hardly tells the whole story. The Savage Man Gods had died, replaced with a co-ed situation, far closer to my particular swinging style.

what exactly is co-op housing?

The co-op concept was born and took hold in the ashes of the Great Depression, when (some) people realized that only by helping, trusting and relying on each other would they be able to exit the doldrums. Those who happened to own some property decided to pool it together and form a legal, non-profit entity, tasked with sharing the ownership in a democratic way. Whomever would be living on that property became part owner, would participate in decision making and share in the responsibilities and the work necessary to sustain and develop it. Here’s some “facts”:

Campus Co-Operative is a non-profit, student led housing co-op located in the U of T area. As a student-led organization, we consider it our mandate to provide our members with more than just affordable housing, we want to provide our members with the experience of living and working in a co-operative community.

Campus Co-Op is not like your average student residence. By moving into one of our houses, you are not simply a tenant, but a member of our community. Our members work together to govern the co-op, administer our meal plans, maintain a fun and social environment and keep our houses beautiful. It takes a special type of person to flourish in our environment, one who is hard-working and interested in bettering their community.

  • Location, Location, Location: Our houses are located near the University of Toronto, in the Annex neighbourhood. The Annex is a fantastic place to live, with concerts, theatre, bars and a thriving nightlife. We are also located at the intersection of two major subway lines, so you can get anywhere you want in Toronto in a matter of minutes.
  • Great Rates: our rates are much less than other forms of accommodation - starting around $450. Inquire about sharing a room with a friend, and save even more.
  • Good Environment: Our houses are fun and social environments, and most of our tenants are university and college students.
  • Great Amenities: We are close to the TTC, the University of Toronto and downtown Toronto.

Wikipedia states:

As a legal entity, a co-op can contract with other companies or hire individuals to provide it with services, such as a maintenance contractor or a building manager. It can also hire employees, such as a manager or a caretaker, to deal with specific things that volunteers may prefer not to do or may not be good at doing, such as electrical maintenance. However, as many housing cooperatives strive to run self-sufficiently, as much work as possible is completed by its members. A shareholder in a co-op does not own real estate, but a share of the legal entity that does own real estate. Co-operative ownership is quite distinct from condominiums where people "own" individual units and have little say in who moves into the other units.


The federal government tied its loan assistance to requirements that these housing co-ops provide a percentage of their units, usually at least 15 to 20 per cent, for what are termed income-tested residents. These people voluntarily provide information to the co-op on a confidential basis about their gross income, and their rent is calculated according to a formula. If the calculated rent is less than the market rent of the units, then the federal government, through another formula, would provide funding to those units to bring their unit revenue up to the market rate. This produced mixed-income co-op housing, in which relatively well-off people lived side-by-side with relatively low-income people and worked with them on committees. This often had the ripple effect of improving the financial health of those less well-off. (It's interesting to note that, depending on your political point of view, such government payments for offsetting the rent could be considered subsidy of the low-income people, or a contractual business arrangement between the government and the co-op which helps to stabilize revenue to the co-op in exchange for accomplishing a social goal for the government for a specific period. This dichotomy is typical of the fact that a housing co-op is somewhere between a corporation and a social agency, and where one places it depends on one's viewpoint—and the collective viewpoint of each housing co-op.)

Political will dissipated in Canada in the 1990s, however, as other issues occupied politicians and financial belt-tightening by the governments reduced the funds available for the mortgages. In 2004 and 2005, however, the political winds shifted back towards the idea of developing more low-income housing. However, not-for-profit housing co-operatives are committed to the mixed-income concept and have not been able to make much use of the few opportunities that have come available in recent years.Also, the term of many of the government agreements concerning funding for housing subsidies are coming to an end, provoking a debate in individual co-ops and the co-op movement on the extent to which co-ops should continue to be mixed-income forms of housing.


In the Industrialisation in the 19th century there were many housing cooperatives founded in Germany. Presently, there are over 2.000 housing cooperatives with over two million apartments and over three million members in Germany. The public housing cooperatives are organised in the GdW Bundesverband deutscher Wohnungs- und Immobilienunternehmen(The Federal association of German housing and real estate enterprise registered associations).

The people I met and the deeds I’d done are a long story, to be told with another occasion

other co-ops

The idea of co-operatives is even older than communism and unfortunately, just as discredited, usually for the same reasons. For one thing, just like communism, co-ops seldom work as envisioned. There is a high rate of cheating among members, whether by not fullfilling their duties, or, in case of retail co-ops, by stealing merchandise.

In a recent article, the Telegraph describes a starting co-op thus:

Nevertheless, he's bang on the money politically, what with a push for volunteering from across the parties, and the Prime Minister's call for the "active participation" of the British people to "mend our broken society".

Once you pay your membership fee (£25) and sign up for a four-hour shift, you will be part-owner of TPS. You will be able to vote on what foods are stocked, and help make decisions on how it's run. You might also find yourself on TV, thanks to a Channel 4 documentary series that (of course) is following the birth of the store.

But running a supermarket with volunteers, however keen, is just not the same as having an army of paid workers, and Potts Dawson, who has opened two London restaurants, knows it. "Hmm," he says, as I rather ineffectually start to clean a window. "I always say that a volunteer takes about three times as long as a professional will to manage a job." I stand back from the window and survey a large area of smears. "I've just cleaned that," hisses Nuala in my ear. (..)

The idea springs from an existing co-operative model in America. Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York, is a co-operative around 25 years old, whose 6,000 members all put in two and three quarter hours a month in order to shop there. Web designer Cathy Clarke has been washing floors and putting out the rubbish at Park Slope for the last seven years.

"I love it," she says. "But then I am like a weird person, I like to clean." And in recession-hit America, the price difference makes a huge difference. "Most stores in the States have 100 per cent markup," she says. "Park Slope marks up by around 20 per cent. In a health food store, a loaf of bread which would costs $3, costs $1.50. An avocado which could be $3 would be $1."

However, as Clarke explains, even though volunteering brings its own feel-good glow, you can't assume everyone in there is a Good Samaritan. "There is a lot of theft at Park Slope," she says. "It's pretty depressing. Cashiers have stolen significant amounts, and have been arrested. People steal food. People sign in, and then don't do their shift." What happens to them? "They eventually get caught and are brought in front of the Disciplinary Committee. They are usually expelled. It sounds harsh, but we are only talking about working for two hours 45 minutes a month."

Even taking holidays is frowned upon, although this is probably no big deal for hard-working New Yorkers, long used to only two weeks of paid holiday every year.

"I wish London good luck with its experiment," says Kristin Miller, 52, who cuts cheese on the deli counter, "but given your British tradition of holidays I think you might have to institute vacations." Judging from how Miller sees it, volunteering to work in a supermarket is not a fun thing, like a sponsored bounce. It's tough. "Over the 20 years I have been there I have occasionally left, because working there has been harder than I could bear," she says.

What happens if you skip your shift? Bad news. "For every shift you miss, you have to do two to make up. The policy is that scheduled time is worth twice as much as unscheduled time," explains Miller. (..)

Adam York, who runs the Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, a 40-member strong co-operative, is somewhat more realistic than Potts Dawson about the likelihood of people wanting to sweep the floors, or stack Baked Beans, of a night. "It is not easy to recruit motivated people," he says. "Culturally, working in the food industry is not popular. We want people who are interested in the rights and responsibilities of owning a business. And the aspirations of the co-operative movement doesn't necessarily meet modern cultural aspirations."

Rubbish, says Potts Dawson. It perfectly meeets them. This supermarket will be communal, it will be friendly, local, cheap and democratic. Rather like a 1950s Tesco, in fact. Does he think it really can take on the modern day giants? Why not, he says. In the meantime, if you want to cut those food bills, and are relaxed about stacking pots of Danone in a chiller cabinet for four hours every month, your time has come.

As for the Mountain Co-op, the famous Canadian BC success story, I have shopped there and even voted in their elections. I can vouch for the excellence of their customer service, their large selection and low prices. They seem to also attract high-quality people in their elections of the board. Yet in 2007, their competitors ran ads claiming that the MEC is unfairly advantaged by their favourable non-profit status.

I wonder if those ads weren’t more like unpaid advertising for MEC Confused

Sources / More info: campus co-op, wiki housing co-op, telegraph-co-op, wiki-park-slope, food-coop, wiki-mountain-co-op, mountain-co-op, wiki-co-op, wiki-cons-coop, yt-coop

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